By Stefan Langenbach*
The Right Camera
For fish photography you should use a mirrorless camera because you’ll be making a lot of pictures till you’ve got THE picture you are happy about. Without a mirror there is just the mechanical shutter that can wear out. Most mirrorless cameras can make the picture even without the shutter, and so the camera will experience no mechanical wear out while taking dozens of photographs of your fish. Depending on the light above the tank, you sometimes need to use the mechanical shutter to reduce the flicker. The flicker can be caused by the power supply of the light.
Deciding what kind of sensor the camera should have is a bit more complicated. There are three sensors available which can be differentiated by their size. The MFT-sensor is the smallest one with the biggest depth of field and the smallest pixel size. The APSC-sensor is the medium one with a good depth of field and a nice size of pixel. The Fullframe-sensor is the biggest sensor with the smallest depth of field and the biggest size of pixel. It doesn’t really matter what kind of sensor you use, but it always helps to check out how much noise various sensors of different manufacturers make.
Try to get a camera with a fast autofocus and as many frames per second as possible. The faster the autofocus and the more pictures per second you can make, the less time you need to take a spectacular picture of a swimming fish. If you want to take a picture of a shrimp while eating or a pleco just lying around, you don’t require a fast camera.
Always keep an eye on the lenses for different cameras. Lenses for FF-cameras are always more expensive and bigger than lenses for MFT-sensors. To make stunning pictures of your fish, it is a good decision to use a macro lens with a focal length of more than 50mm if your fish is small (less than 2 inches). If you wish to take a picture of a fish bigger than 3 inches, you can easily use a normal tele lens. Using a lens with internal stabilisation and a good autofocus engine will make a lot of things easier for you.
You should use an exposure time of 1/250s because the fish is always moving. While you are using that exposure time, you can take the pictures without using a tripod and be more flexible to react on the movement of the fish. If you want to take a picture of a shrimp or pleco you can easily set the exposure time up to 1/100s or even 1/50s, and use a tripod.
To get the maximum amount of light onto the sensor you should open up your aperture as much as possible. But don’t forget that your depth of field will be smaller the more open the aperture is and depending on the form of the fish’s body you might have parts of the fish out of focus. The ISO should be at least as high as there will be no disturbing noise. How high you can set the ISO depends on the sensor and the manufacturer of the camera. If the picture is still under exposed you can try to get a longer exposure time of 1/200s or 1/160s.
The lighting is one of the most important aspects of fish photography. If you want the fish to be your main object in the picture it has got to be brighter than the background. That’s why I always use a Spotlight and not a flash. With a Spotlight you can make sure that the fish receives more light than the background. Make sure that the light always just comes from above the fish. If the ground beneath the fish reflects some light or is too bright, the fish just won’t look like it should because in nature the sunlight always comes from above.
Another important thing to keep in mind while taking pictures of your fish is the background. If the background is too restless or too close to the fish, the eyes are distracted by the background and the fish is no longer the prime focus of the picture. To make sure that the viewer can concentrate on the fish your background should consist of big green leafs at a distance of minimum 4” (depending on the camera and the lens). It is also recommended to use a dark background if the fish is very colourful like Betta splendens.
Taking the Picture
When you use a spotlight, you’ve got to search for a place where the background looks soft with enough space in front of it. After you’ve found the right place, search for the fish you want to take a picture of. Don’t follow the fish with your camera through the whole tank. Just point the fish with your eyes and wait till the fish comes in front of the background. Try to predict the movement of the fish and follow it with your camera just in the small spot in front of the background. Make sure that the fish and the camera always stays parallel to the glass of the tank to get the sharpest pictures. If the camera is not parallel to the glass, the whole picture will be blurred. If the fish is not parallel, parts of the fish will remain out of focus.
Most fish have their fins down while swimming. If you also wish to take a picture with the fins up, you’ve got to wait until the fish stops swimming (sometimes it feels like it never happens) or you’ve got to wait until the fish wants to change direction. Shortly before changing the direction, a lot of fish put up their fins to stabilise themselves for the modification.
I hope I could help you a bit to understand how I take striking pictures of fish. But even after you know how to set everything to make the picture, you still need to be very patient. Depending on your gear and the fish, it sometimes needs more than one hour to get a single eye-catching picture. So, patience is still the key to taking an arresting picture of your swimming friend.
* Stefan Langenbach is an ardent fish keeper and passionate photographer. He started taking pictures of different species of freshwater fish in February 2019 and posting them on his Instagram handle @langenbach.photography. Since then he has photographed more than 200 species of freshwater fish and interacted with many friendly people on the scene.